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Smile and You Feel Happy? Maybe not

Image result for Robert Zajonc

A recent story in Slate discusses replication issues with recent experiments on the relationship between emotions and facial expressions.

This is appropriate grist for a blog called "Jamesian Philosophy Refreshed" if only because the initiating issue sounds so much like the James-Lange theory of emotions. But, I would submit, the sounds-like is key. There are big differences.

But to start from the (logical) beginning. One normally suspects that a facial expression is, as the term implies, that which expresses something deeper.  The emotion is the something deeper. So happiness is the cause and a smile is the effect.

But some psychologists have claimed that they could increase an experimental subject's happiness by getting him to smile. By hooking his face up to electrodes that lead nowhere, for example, and telling him, "you're helping us in an experiment on the neuro control of facial muscles." That way, his "smile" comes about for a reason unrelated to his happiness. So if he feels happier afterward than does a control subject  (who was manipulated in much the same way into frowning! or maintaining a blank expression), then the direction of the causative arrow will be clear.

In the 1980s, psychologists such as Robert Zajonc began to claim that they had found a small but statistically significant effect -- smiling does create happiness. So .. vindication for the James-Lange theory, right? Well, not really.

Yes, James thought of emotions as the psychological consequence of bodily actions. But it is clear he had in mind instinctive reactions, not the sort of things Zajonc (pictured above)  was coaxing from his university undergrads.

James' notorious example was "We don't become afraid of the bear, and consequently run. We run, and thus become afraid." [I'm quoting from memory, and thus fallibly.] The fight-or-flight instinct causes both the running and the fear, the former more proximately than the latter. It isn't clear to me that this matches up well with Zajonc's hypothesis.

Applied to smiles, James might have said, "We don't find ourselves amused by a witticism, and then smile. We find ourselves smiling as cued by a witticism, and thus feel amused." That is quite different from deliberately manipulating face muscles, and then reacting favorably or otherwise to an unrelated witticism.

At any rate, the Slate article says that recent efforts to replicate the results of Zajonc and others who announced similar findings soon after him, have failed. There might be a number of reasons for this, and some of the explanations might concede that Zajonc nonetheless had a point.

But it has nothing much to do with James-Lange, one way or another.
The relevant hypotheses only sound similar.


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